Anbar Awakening In Danger Of Being Put To Sleep

[ Posted Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 – 15:01 UTC ]

America handed over control of the Iraqi province of Al-Anbar to the Iraqi military yesterday. Although they had to postpone this handover for two months due to (depending on who you believe) concerns about a dust storm, or an uptick in suicide bombings, the handover is now complete. But while President Bush hailed this as a success story in his usual blustery language ("Today, Anbar is no longer lost to al-Qaeda -- it is al-Qaeda that lost Anbar"), the outcome is far from being so clear. And there are disturbing signs that point to this "success story" being undermined by the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

Anbar is the province that gave birth to what have been variously described as the "Anbar Awakening," the "Sunni Awakening," the "Sons of Iraq," or the "Awakening Councils." These were Sunni groups who were tired of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (also called AQI, for "Al-Qaeda in Iraq") sowing so much destruction. The foot soldiers of the insurgency basically switched sides, and threw in their lot with the United States. America, in a spirit of forgiveness, started paying these soldiers $300 a month to stop attacking Iraqi and American forces, and instead hunt down AQI and drive it from the province. They succeeded in doing so, and so America kept paying them for providing security for the region.

But all that is about to end. Come October 1, the Maliki government in Iraq is supposed to take over paying these 100,000 Awakening troops. And then he's supposed to absorb around 20 percent of them into the Iraqi security forces, and give the remainder other civil service jobs.

This where the doubt begins.

Because Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government has shown absolutely no inclination to hire any of their former Sunni enemies, either in the military or otherwise. And once the Americans are gone from the province, it's hard to believe that Maliki will continue paying them their $300 per month very much longer, either.

The Washington Post recently ran an article which points out the attitudes from both sides of this divide:

"We are afraid that half of the Awakening will be left alone in the streets," said Kaleefa Ahmed, a leader of the movement in Anbar province, of the transition plan announced Monday. "If that happens, we will return to square one, with some of our men returning to the insurgency."

The portion integrated into the security forces is likely to be about 20 percent, according to Sami al-Askari, a Shiite lawmaker close to Maliki. "We don't need to have all of them join the army," he said. "It would create a mess."

Which may put the province right back where it started before the Awakening began. Because for all the vaunted "success" of the surge, political reconciliation just has not happened in Iraq yet. And Anbar is a stark reminder of this underlying truth to the Iraq situation.

Because the first thing Maliki is doing is to arrest 650 Awakening leaders. He issued arrest warrants for these people, and they are now either in custody, or on the run. As far as Maliki is concerned, these people are criminals for joining an insurrection against the state. As far as the Awakening folks are concerned, that should be forgiven for their change of heart against AQI. Again, from the Post article:

Col. Saadi al-Dulaimy, commander of an Iraqi army battalion west of Baghdad, said many Awakening fighters are former members of al-Qaeda in Iraq with blood on their hands and complicity in killings of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. "Today they claim they are part of the Awakening just to escape punishment," he said.

Sheik Adnan al-Zobaie, leader of an Awakening group called "Hunters of the Foreign Fighters," based in Smelat, west of Baghdad, is hiding with 59 of his fighters near a U.S. military base in Anbar to evade arrest warrants issued against them.

"They accuse me of operating with one of the insurgent groups, which I don't deny, but now I am fighting al-Qaeda and what I did before should be forgiven," Zobaie said. "Why do they want to put me in prison with the al-Qaeda members I already captured? I can't understand that."

In a telephone interview from a hideout in a remote area of Anbar province, Abu Mustafa al-Lehebi, a leader of a brigade of the Abu Ghraib Awakening, said: "We have only the U.S. Army to protect us, but we are afraid that they will let us down when they hand over the security profile to Iraqis in Anbar.

"The government stabbed us in the back and lied to us," he said. "Now we are caught between the hammer of al-Qaeda and the anvil of the government."

To complicate matters (nothing in Iraq is simple), there are internal power struggles going on within the Sunnis in the province, with the Iraq Islamic Party on one side and the Awakening Councils on the other. The I.I.P. (which controls the Anbar provincial council currently) feels threatened by the newly formed Awakening within their ranks, and the two are squabbling in anticipation of local elections (which so far have not even been agreed to by the Iraqi Parliament, but which were supposed to take place this year).

So the outcome in Anbar is not as certain as Bush would have us all believe. There are signs that AQI is infiltrating back into the province. Maliki shows no taste for hiring any Sunnis into the country's military, much less in any other job. And Maliki's first move in this chess game was to round up hundreds of Awakening leaders, which is not a very positive sign for the future of the Awakening within his government. Rather than Bush's rosy-tinted optimism about the province, I leave you with the remarks of Marine Major General John Kelly, commander of the American forces in the province, speaking on the occasion of the transfer of power to the Iraqis:

"All we can hope to do is hold what we've achieved against the terrorists. There are two things that are desperately needed that security forces cannot provide here: trust and friendship amongst all of you and between the province and the rest of Iraq. I pray God you can achieve this. If you will fail... then the agony we will have endured together will have been for nothing."


Update to yesterday's column:

While researching today's column, I came upon an interesting passage in an International Herald Tribune article, which dealt with the negotiations between Iraq and Bush over the SOFA agreement (see yesterday's column, "Maliki's Leverage Over Bush"):

In Baghdad on Wednesday, a senior Iraqi official confirmed that the government had appointed a new team to negotiate with American officials on a security agreement governing American forces in Iraq. The official refused to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the issue.

Haider al-Abadi, a senior politician from Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's Dawa Party, said that a negotiating team led by Muhammad al-Haj Hamud, an Iraqi deputy foreign minister, had been replaced because "the Iraqi government wants to finish the whole thing very soon."

The new team, led by the national security adviser, Rubaie, "has more authority to get the negotiations concluded soon," Abadi said.

Iraqi and American officials have said that while a deal is close, some issues are still in dispute, including the question of immunity for American forces. On Tuesday, Maliki met with Tariq al-Hashimi and Adel Abdul Mahdi, both Iraqi vice presidents, to discuss a draft agreement under which American troops would be withdrawn from Iraqi cities by next June and from the rest of the country by 2011, depending on how stable Iraq is.

If true, this is indeed an interesting development. I have no idea what the implications are at this point, but I thought it was worth pointing out.


-- Chris Weigant


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